Theoretical postscript

Deeply rooted in European culture are certain stories about language. The Old Testament of the Bible tells of a single original language, spoken by Adam in naming the objects around him. The subsequent splitting of this one language into several mutually unintelligible ones was God's punishment. During the period of their ancient empire, the Greeks too looked back to a linguistic past they felt was better, the 'Golden Age' of Homer's epics. In both traditions, then, there is a sense of linguistic decline.

Such stories of linguistic decline are still very powerful today when, like the Greeks, we apply them to a particular language. This is partly because they overlap with a more general sense that manners and behaviour are not what they were. But it is also possible to see the opposite tendency when particular languages are discussed: the story is not one of decline but progress, overlapping with an opposing tendency to see the past as characterised by ignorance, cruelty and want, conditions from which we are lucky to have been delivered.

Also widespread is a third kind of story which combines elements of both: a language will degenerate if it is not cared for, but can be maintained and even improved by dint of great effort. So Dr Johnson on p. xv of the Preface to his Dictionary, looking back over a thousand years of linguistic history, thought the Anglo-Saxons might have been

a people without learning, and very probably without an alphabet; their speech therefore, having been always cursory and extemporaneous, must have been artless and unconnected, without any modes of transition or involution of clauses; which abruptness and inconnection may be observed even in their later writings. This barbarity may be supposed to have continued during their wars with the Britains, which for a time left them no leisure for softer studies; nor is there any reason for supposing it abated, till the year 570, when


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A Social History of English


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